Updated September 17, 2020
Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of chickens with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a bird is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy bird look and feel like, but regular handling may help in keeping a bird calm in more stressful situations. Be prepared to check them over at least once a month*! For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.
Though every chicken is different, they tend to hide their pain if they can. By paying regular attention to the flock, you may see some subtle cues in the event that something is amiss. Large breed chickens and chickens bred to lay a large number of eggs are especially susceptible to some ailments that are hard to notice without a thorough examination.
Signs of a sick, injured, or otherwise distressed chicken include:
- Hiding more often than they used to
- Changing their daily schedule (such as reduced dust bathing)
- Labored breathing, gurgling sounds, or a constantly open mouth
- Immobility, inactivity or unresponsiveness to your approach
- Sitting far more often than usual
- Avoiding the rest of the flock
- Being bullied more by the rest of the flock or a quick pecking order reduction
- A limp in their step or standing on one foot
- Unusual or abnormal droppings including all white stool, blood in stool, or worms
- A pale or discolored comb or wattle
- Reduced hunger or thirst, or excessive water drinking
- An odd posture- either very upright like a penguin or hunching with a tucked tail or head, or ruffled feathers
- If they lay eggs, a quick drop in egg laying
- Pecking at or plucking their skin and feathers
- A strong, foul, sour, or cheesy odor
- Fecal matting underneath the vent
- Swollen sinuses or swelling around eyes
- One or both wings drooping
- An abnormally large crop, or a full crop before the chicken has had access to food
- Discharge coming from the eyes or nares
Conducting the Exam
In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the bird. Generally, the examination should begin at their feet, working your way front and upward to their head, as the head examination can be extra stressful to a bird. It’s important to keep regular documentation of these checkups, including weight and any abnormal findings, in order to keep an easy-to-follow set of information in case a veterinarian needs the chicken’s history.
It can be easier to conduct the examination when the chicken is roosting as they tend to be less fussy.
Once you have the chicken ready for a health examination, conduct the following observations:
The chicken should have smooth and non-raised scales on their feet. Check for any bumps, lumps, swelling, scabs, cuts, or pressure sores on both the top and bottom of their feet and toes. If there is any bulging or discoloration on their feet, ensure that they do not have bumblefoot or another infection, as this can cause debilitating mobility issues and if left untreated can cause life-threatening sepsis. If they have lumps of mud stuck to their feet, soak them off with warm and soapy water rather than attempting to pull them off. Don’t remove scabs unless you have been trained by an expert and are very experienced in evaluating foot infections in chickens! If you find a scab covering a swollen and hot or fluid-filled area, or if there is discharge seeping out from the scabbed area, you should have the chicken evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Carefully check their foot for heat or swelling. If they have red, swollen, or scabby joints, this could be indicative of a serious joint infection that requires a veterinary exam. Make sure that their toes are elongated and straight; twisted and folded toes are generally not a good sign, but you’ll need to familiarize yourself with what is normal for each individual. Some chickens will come in with twisted toes when they are rescued, possibly from a nutritional deficiency as a chick or from an injury, and may never have issues or need any treatment, but if a chicken had straight toes last month and twisted toes this month, then you should consult with a veterinarian. Also be aware that a chicken with severe arthritis, especially a large breed chicken, may slowly develop twisted toes over time. Check their natural perching reflex on both feet by placing a finger under their feet and ensuring that they grip around it. Check their nails to ensure that they’re normal length and even. You may have to trim or file them if overgrown. Large breed chickens are prone to arthritis. Because of this, make sure to regularly check for inflammation in their feet and toes.
The chicken’s legs (also known as shanks), should have smooth scales that aren’t lifted away from their body. If they’re flaky, crusty, or raised, they might have scaly leg mites. Their legs shouldn’t have any cuts, missing scales, lumps, or any mites on or under the scales. If they have feathers on their legs, make sure to check them for broken pin feathers and cuts. If their legs are raw and painful, they might have Scald, which is a result of poor housing conditions leading to ammonia burns. This requires medical treatment. Carefully check their range of motion, especially in their hocks for cracking sounds, pain, resistance, heat, or swelling. Because of the conformation of their legs, assessing range of motion issues in their stifles and hips is difficult. Like their keel, large breed chickens are prone to inflammation and sores on their hocks that require vigilant attention to prevent infection. Do not attempt to drain infected joints! If a rooster has long or sharp spurs, you should trim them and consider covering with a nail cover. Be aware that the quick will grow as the spur grows out, so it’s far easier to trim them regularly rather than waiting for the spurs to get long before you trim. If you have identification bands on your bird, make sure that they are not causing pain or leg damage.
The chicken’s feathers typically should look shiny and lay flat against them. Bloody feathers is a clear sign of a problem. If the bird isn’t close to their molting season, feathers should not be dirty, dull, missing, tattered, frayed, ruffled, or broken. Any of these issues could be symptomatic of a stressed out bird, parasites, flock behavior issues like bullying, over-mounting, nutritional deficiencies (especially protein), and infestations in their living space like rodents or flies. If the chicken is molting, be very mindful of their pin feathers, as these emerging feathers are very sensitive to handling and can bleed quite a bit if broken. If their feathers don’t seem to be developing or won’t fold into their normal position, this is also indicative of a problem. As a note, Large Breed Chickens commonly might have a feather-free section between their chest up to their vent all the time because they tend to lay down more than other chicken breeds.
Part the chicken’s feathers around their body if they aren’t too sensitive. Feathers can hide skin illnesses and injuries. This is the time to ensure you are checking and feeling every area of the individual’s body, not just those included in this list. This thorough section of the exam is critical to ensure that nothing that can be addressed early is missed. Their skin should not have lice, mites, nits, lumps, cuts, cysts, bruises, gangrene, larvae or maggots. It should generally be clean and soft and pale pink and translucent.
The chicken’s breast should be blister-free and firm. Different breeds of chickens have very different body types, so be sure to consider the individual at all points of the health examination, but especially when checking their keels and assessing their body condition. For large breed chickens, their keel (central breast bone) should not be sharp, protruding, or bony (indicating possible weight loss). In general, a large breed chicken with a healthy body condition will have a slightly recessed keel, with muscle protruding a bit on both sides. In chickens bred to lay a large number of eggs, the keel will be much more prominent than in a large breed chicken. However, you should still be able to feel well defined muscle on both sides of their keel. In large breed chickens and in roosters, the keel should be not be curved, which may indicate a nutritional deficiency, especially a calcium and phosphate imbalance or a vitamin D deficiency, which could mean too many treats in their diet! While a misshapen keel is technically “abnormal”, it is not uncommon in hens bred for egg production- during periods of heavy egg laying their bodies can become depleted of calcium causing the keel bone to soften, and depending on the hen’s environment it can re-harden in an abnormal shape. Hens rescued from battery cages often have curved and misshapen keel bones because the bone re-hardens while the hens is laying on a wire bottom floor. Large breed chickens are more prone to pressure sores on their keel, though any chicken who spends a lot of time laying down or who has a very prominent keel due to weight loss can develop a sore. Any keel sores should be treated early on before they risk infection. If there’s a keel sore that moves along with the bone underneath, this could indicate that they already have a bone infection.
This is another area where you will find a significant difference between different breeds of chickens as well as between roosters and hens. In general with large breed chickens, both roosters and hens will have a semi-firm, distended belly. When checking their belly, you should not feel any specific structures, with the exception of possibly the gizzard down near the keel. Their belly should not feel fluidy or hard. Though less common than in hens bred for egg production, large breed hens can develop reproductive issues, so any abnormalities should be reported to your veterinarian.
Non-large breed roosters should have a very small abdomen that does not extend out past the vent at all. It should feel soft, and with the exception of the gizzard, you should not be able to feel any defined structures. A rooster with a distended, hard, or fluidy belly should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible as they could have a serious issue such as heart failure or cancer.
Because of the prevalence of reproductive issues in hens bred for egg production, you will want to pay extra attention to their bellies. It can take time to become familiar with what a “normal” hen’s belly feels like, and to further complicate things, their belly size often changes with the season, becoming more distended in the early spring when egg production increases, and becoming smaller in the late fall/ early winter when egg production slows down. These nuances can take time to become familiar with, so be sure to take good notes during each health examination, and review significant findings with your veterinarian or another care expert. When checking their belly, be gentle. There is a good chance someone will have a fully shelled egg in their oviduct, and you do not want to break it! Their belly should either be very small, like a non-large breed rooster’s, or slightly distended and soft. It should never feel fluidy, and with the exception of an egg and possibly the gizzard, you should not be able to feel any distinct structures. A tight, fluidy belly could indicate a serious health issue like yolk peritonitis, reproductive tract cancer, or heart failure. Hard, movable masses, or a distended belly that is rock hard could be indicative of an egg yolk impaction. If you feel thick or hard nodular structures that extend back into the chicken’s body, you could be feeling unhealthy intestines resulting from an infection or cancer. Unless you are thoroughly trained and have years of experience, you shouldn’t attempt to diagnose health conditions based on your abdominal findings. Instead, familiarize yourself with what you should and shouldn’t feel, and then consult with a veterinarian about any abnormalities. They will likely recommend further imaging in order to more accurately assess the situation.
At the base of the chicken’s tail is the preen gland. Be sure to familiarize yourself with what a normal chicken preen gland looks like- it looks different than that of a duck or goose! Aside from the gland itself, which has small lobes on each side, it should not have any additional lumps, and the lobes should be small, fairly symmetrical, and soft. Orange-tinged oily discharge from the tip of the gland is normal, but there should be no other areas with discharge. Ensure that it does not have any parasites around it. An enlarged preen gland could indicate impaction or cancer. Impaction can be handled with a warm compress periodically applied to their preen gland, but it should be evaluated by an expert before beginning treatment.
The chicken’s vent (a fancy way to say their butt), should be clean and moist (but not wet) and should be the same color as the rest of their skin. It shouldn’t have any discharge, excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty, bloody, or dry. Ensure that it doesn’t have any mites, lice, tapeworms, or other parasites. Check for rat wounds, as this is where they tend to bite; the presence of rat wounds is a major red flag that you must control your rodent population before they cause more damage. Make sure that it isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding). If it’s prolapsed, you must consult with a veterinarian immediately. Check the general shape of the vent: a hen who is regularly laying eggs will have one that looks like a coin slot. A hen who is not laying eggs regularly will have one that’s more circular. If a large breed chicken is laying eggs and consistently breaking them, you must keep them clean of yolk as it attracts parasites.
Take a look at the chicken’s wings. You will likely have to check the wing held close to you in a later part of the examination when you reposition them to check their crop. The wings should be held close to their body, be generally symmetrical, and there should be movement in their wings’ joints when they flex. The chicken’s wings should be checked for cuts, swelling, and other injuries. Make sure to check the area underneath their wings for lice and mites as well as any injuries, as this is a common place to find mounting wounds on hens. If you find mounting wounds, be sure to investigate the cause after addressing the wounds. Sometimes a mounting wound is a sign that the rooster the hen is living with needs to have his spurs trimmed or covered. Other times it could be a sign that the rooster is too big or rough for the hen or that you need to increase the hen to rooster ratio.
The chicken’s crop is left of center from their breast when looking straight on at them. It is where food is stored before entering a chicken’s stomach. It should feel empty (or impossible to feel at all) before they eat for the day or after digestion, and full after eating. Typically a non-large breed chicken’s crop holds about 1.5 oz of food, which is why chickens eat a little bit throughout the day. If the crop is hard or filled with fluid, this could indicate a problem. In general, it is best to assess the chicken’s overall well-being in addition to any perceived crop abnormalities. A chicken could have a hard crop because they overate or didn’t drink enough water on a hot day. They could have a fluidy crop because they just drank a bit of water. If the chicken is bright and active, a good rule of thumb for less severe abnormalities is to check the chicken’s crop later in the day, and if necessary, again in the morning before they have eaten. If their crop is flat by morning, then most likely there was never really an issue to begin with. If the abnormality becomes more severe, or the chicken begins to display other signs of illness, then you should consult with a veterinarian or other care professional to diagnose and treat the issue. If the chicken has bad or sour-smelling breath, this also indicates possible crop issues, such as sour crop, which is a fungal yeast infection that requires treatment. If the crop remains full and firm in the bird and they haven’t eaten in a while (or overnight), the crop could be impacted (or blocked). If you are concerned about a chicken’s crop, you should consult a veterinarian. It’s important to get to know what a crop feels like both full and empty so you can more easily monitor it for abnormalities.
How are they holding their head? It’s best if they’re holding it up on their own volition. If they’re shaking, hunching, or tucking their head, this can be a sign of illness or injury. The comb (on their head) and wattles (below their chin) should generally not be floppy, pale, swollen, ashen, or discolored from its normal hue. Be sure to get to know each individual- some breeds, such as leghorns, tend to have floppy combs, so take into account what is normal for each individual in your care. If the comb or wattles have scabs, lesions, or black or white bumps, this could indicate a pecking injury from another chicken, or an illness like fowl pox or favus, or frostbite (which is serious and must be treated). Younger, molting, implanted, and broody chickens may naturally have a pale comb. Their ears should not have any discharge coming from them, which could indicate an infection.
The chicken should have wide open, clean, alert eyes. They should be free of discharge and clear. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, or crusty eyes indicates likely illness or injury. Their pupils should be round, be about the same size, and react properly to bright light (get smaller and then return to normal). Their iris (the colored part of their eyes) should not be gray unless they’re very young (as chicks tend to have blue-gray irises). Chickens do have a third eyelid (also known as the nictitating membrane). It should be cloudy white and retract when stimulated, rather than red, swollen, or non-retractable.
Is the chicken’s beak open or closed? If mostly open, they may be stressed, overheated, or have a respiratory illness. A typical beak is crack-free and smooth. In chickens who have not been de-beaked, check if the top beak is significantly longer than the lower beak. If a beak is chipped, broken, or overgrown, it can be trimmed or filed or may require medical attention. Most chickens who need their beaks trimmed will only need the top beak trimmed; however, chickens who have been de-beaked can be more prone to overgrowth of their lower beak and may need it trimmed. Check the alignment of their upper mandible (top part of their beak). It should be directly above the bottom part and slightly longer, coming to a point. If the top and bottom beak go in different directions, this may be a common deformity known as crossed beak (or Scissor beak). Birds with a crossed beak may need to be offered softer foods, such as soaked pellets, because dry pellets and crumble can be difficult for them to eat. They also tend to need their beaks trimmed regularly, and depending on the severity and type of deformity, may need either or both their upper and lower beak trimmed. If the beak’s alignment is suddenly different, there’s likely an issue that must be assessed by a veterinarian. Their nares (chicken nostrils) should be free of scratches, bubbles, discharge, and general crustiness.
The chicken’s mouth should not be foaming or contain discharge. You shouldn’t be able to hear them breathe in ideal circumstances. Their breathing should not be labored, loud, wheezy, rattly, sneezy, whistling, or squeaky. Now look inside their mouth (especially at their tongue). It should not have any ulcers, lesions, lumps, or discoloration. If there are lesions that look “cheesy”, this could be due to mold toxicity, Wet Fowl pox, or squamous cell carcinoma. Their mouth shouldn’t have a strange odor. If it does, they may have sour crop. It’s completely normal for their mouth’s roof and upper mandible to have a split in it. This is called the choanal slit, and it should be free of obstruction and discharge. A chicken’s healthy respiration is 12-37 breaths per minute. Sticky saliva could indicate dehydration.
It’s important to know the accurate weight of each of the birds in your care, as a healthy adult chicken should maintain weight consistently. If the bird has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or parasites like coccidiosis. If the bird has gained weight, it’s critical to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding them, especially with treats and snacks. Obesity-related complications regularly can lead to death in chickens, especially large breed chickens. If you need to lower their food intake, you must do it gradually because a quick drop in nutrition could lead to serious health repercussions. In addition to weighing each bird, you should also pay attention to their body condition. Does a bird feel thin with a prominent keel and little muscle mass, but based on the number on the scale, they have not lost weight or have maybe even gained? A loss in body condition without their actual weight going down could indicate a serious health issue such as abdominal fluid or a tumor. For birds with confirmed health issues that result in fluid build-up or masses in their abdomens, be sure to take that into consideration when weighing them. A hen with reproductive tract cancer and subsequent abdominal fluid, for example, may technically have a “normal” weight, but a large percentage of it could be the fluid. If the fluid is removed, she could likely weigh half of what she did when the fluid was present.
It’s highly recommended to create a dropping board for your roost in order to be able to quickly inspect a chicken’s droppings. This practice makes it easy to recognize what healthy chicken droppings look like, which can be quite diverse. If it’s poorly formed, pasty, watery, strong smelling, black, bloody, yellow, green, or foamy, it could be a sign of parasites, illness, or improper nutrition. If you’re particularly concerned by a dropping, you can bring it into your veterinarian for a fecal float test for analysis, though you should consider fecal testing healthy-seeming birds once every three months to check for internal parasites.
If you notice that a chicken is unhealthy, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian and/ or compassionate care expert and prioritize accurately diagnosing the problem. Depending on the health concern, it may be necessary to isolate the chicken in order to protect the rest of the flock from a potentially infectious disease. However, with some illness, such as pneumonia or fowl pox, often once a chicken is showing symptoms, the other residents in the flock have already been exposed. In these instances, you will need to weigh what is in the best interest of all of your residents. A sick chicken who is isolated from their flock may become more stressed, which could delay recovery. Also keep in mind that in flocks with more than one rooster, it can sometimes be difficult to re-introduce a rooster back into the flock, so you may only want to separate a rooster in this situation when absolutely necessary. However, if the chicken is being bullied or cannot compete with the rest of the flock for food, or if you need to more closely monitor their food and water intake and fecal output, you will likely need to separate them at least temporarily. You may find that keeping them in a quiet space with a calm chicken companion is a good compromise until they are well enough to rejoin the flock.
If you find anything concerning, take a look at our Common Chicken Health Issues page to help identify what may be amiss, but you should always discuss any potential health issues with a qualified avian veterinarian or expert.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a chicken and what good chicken health looks like, you’ll be an excellent chicken health ally in no time!
Writing It All Down
As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your chicken health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable chicken health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!
Chicken Examinations | For Dummies (Non-Compassionate Source)
DIY Chicken Checkup | The Chicken Chick (Non-Compassionate Source)